Mobile isn't the future. Mobile is now. For leading brands like Starbucks, that's an important reality. So important, in fact, that it's compelling the coffee behemoth to rethink its entire business model.

Starbucks has been a mobile pioneer for years, launching the first version of its order-ahead mobile app feature back in 2014. The feature quickly became so popular that mobile orders were creating crowding problems in stores. As a result, the company was one of the first to install dedicated in-store stations to serve mobile app customers, and other popular chains have since followed suit. Now Starbucks is blazing a new trail, having opened its first pickup-only store in New York at the end of 2019, with a broader rollout expected this year.

The coffee chain's success teaches marketers a valuable lesson -- namely, that the best consumer experiences on mobile encourage ongoing brand interactions via other channels. According to survey data from Numerator, a market intelligence and consumer insights provider, roughly two-thirds (61.4%) of Starbucks guests use the company's app, with the majority of those using it to order ahead or pay in store. Data also suggests that the app promotes purchasing behavior, as app usage and frequency of visits appear to be highly correlated. App users were more than twice as likely to visit multiple times a week and, impressively, 10 times more likely to visit multiple times a day.

The Gold-Star Standard

Of course, Starbucks is in an enviable position compared to other quick-service restaurants. While consumers may rely on their coffee order every morning -- and may even enjoy the same coffee and breakfast combo on a daily basis -- they're less likely to order lunch or dinner from a single location with the same frequency. Still, any company with a mobile app can and should strive to incorporate the best elements of Starbucks' mobile strategy into their own. Here's how to do it:

1. Incentivize brand loyalty.

Starbucks is heavily invested in its app-based loyalty program, though it's not alone. Competitors like Dunkin' and Burger King also offer major incentives to customers who order through their apps. Rewards programs generally drive engagement: According to data from Mercator, 50%-60% of consumers report that their membership in a brand's loyalty program made them more likely to visit that brand's physical locations. 

With the Starbucks app, users can earn redeemable stars for every dollar spent. Giving these rewards an expiration date (6-12 months from time of purchase, depending on the membership level) both prompts customers to use them and encourages further purchases so loyalists can maintain their upper-tier status. These gamification elements don't just enhance the app; they make the entire customer experience more enjoyable, which encourages loyalty.

2. Personalize the experience.

Starbucks and other leading consumer brands like Nike and McDonald's treat mobile not as a channel, but rather as a means for delivering integrated digital and offline experiences in real time. The key to any effective customer experience? On-point personalization. 

The Starbucks app stores data about individual customer preferences and purchasing behaviors, using that data to craft unique offers and discounts directly targeting these customers. Other seemingly small personalized touches -- the app will highlight the music playing in the store the customer is visiting, for instance -- make for a holistic brand interaction that bridges the online and physical experience.

3. Virtualize brand values.

Younger consumers are typically viewed as the driving force behind the mobile revolution, and these consumers also tend to be the most values-driven shoppers. These facts aren't lost on Starbucks.

The chain is in the process of implementing a new app feature that will allow customers to learn more about the origin of their coffee simply by scanning the package that contains it. The traceability feature will supply ethical sourcing information and focus coffee drinkers on coffee farmers, ultimately humanizing the Starbucks brand for consumers in search of authenticity.

Starbucks has set a high bar for mobile app marketing and design, but it doesn't have a monopoly on best practices. After incorporating loyalty rewards, online-offline personalization, and brand values into the mobile app experience, companies might be surprised by how much their brand engagement increases.

Published on: Jan 24, 2020
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